Gayle Lynds has been called the Queen of Espionage Fiction. She is a New York Times best-selling author whose books have been called “immensely satisfying”, “everything a reader could possibly want”, and “compulsively readable.” Her first book, Masquerade, is listed on Publishers Weekly’s list of 15 top spy novels. Gayle has won numerous awards, including the American Authors Association Best Novel for her book, The Last Spymaster, the Military Writers Society of America Best Novel for her book The Coil, and most recently the Founder’s Awards for Best Novel from the Military Writers Society of America for her book, The Assassins. On top of all of this, Gayle Lynds is the co-founder of International Thriller Writers. It is an honor for me to have the opportunity to ask her a few questions.
MB: You started your career as a newspaper journalist for The Arizona Republic and went on to become an editor at a government think tank where you were granted Top Secret security clearance. What led you to make the shift from journalism to writing spy fiction?
GL: One of the reasons I love journalism – nonfiction writing – is I find it to be an excuse to satisfy my curiosity. Whether working in news or as an editor and writer at a think tank, I was able to explore all sorts of fascinating real-life situations. After a while, I found myself asking “what if” – what if a Top Secret brainwashing program works (Masquerade). What if a great Cold War spymaster is blackmailed and sent to prison as a traitor (The Last Spymaster)? And “what if” is the beginning of fiction, a very slippery slope that I’ve enjoyed a great deal.
MB: Your first novel, Masquerade, was published in 1996. At the time of its release, the spy thriller genre was primarily male-dominated by authors like Robert Ludlum and John le Carré. Can you talk for a moment about how difficult it was to break into the genre?
GL: Sometimes one does things not because they’re easy or even right, but because one doesn’t know any better. I had no idea I wasn’t supposed to write in the field! But I’d always loved international espionage novels, admired them, and by the 1990s I had a background in government secrets. So I spent four years working on Masquerade. My agent’s first submission was to the female head of one of the big New York publishing houses, but she turned it down because “no woman could’ve written it.” So then my agent sent it to the male head of a different house, and he bought it because he thought the book was terrific. It apparently didn’t occur to him that women weren’t supposed to write such books. I still smile when I think about it. And we ended up making history.
MB: Your books have an international theme to them. You write in rich detail about exotic locations such as Rome, Baghdad, Moscow, and Berlin. How do you research them? Have you had the opportunity to visit the locations where your books are set?
GL: Thank you for the compliment, Michael. It’s true that I love my settings. Many of them I’ve visited more than once, and others I’ve not visited at all except in my imagination and by interviewing friends, reading extensively, and studying maps. I don’t tell readers which locations I’ve personally explored because that’s part of the fun for them, and for me. If I’ve done a good job, readers won’t care – they’ll be enjoying the suspenseful scenes in all of the locations.
MB: For most of your career, your books have focused on spies. Your latest book, The Assassins, is about six assassins in a high stakes hunt for $40 billion dollars. Why the shift from spies to assassins for this new book?
GL: You’re right – I’ve been writing about spies for years, and as it turns out, the novels always included assassins, too, in subsidiary roles. Sometimes they were state sponsored, sometimes independents, and sometimes they were also undercover operatives. Most of us think of assassins as monolithic, cut from the same lethal cloth – psychopaths or sociopaths. But that’s not true. They’re different from one another and fall at various points on a spectrum. So, in The Assassins, I had fun mixing it up. Two spies – Judd Ryder and Eva Blake – must hunt down and stop, one at a time, the six killers. And the last assassin becomes by default the best. It was a great adventure to write.
MB: Let’s take a moment to talk about the craft of writing. What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?
GL: The first word of the day is always the most difficult. But then it gets easier as my creative juices flow and my internal editor whacks away and suddenly I have a scene that seems halfway passable . . . and at that point I smile, and am grateful I get to do this every day.
MB: During your career you’ve written non-fiction and fiction, first as a journalist and now as a novelist. What was an early experience where you learned that your words had power?
GL: Years ago, I was a general assignment reporter for The Arizona Republic, in Phoenix. It was a wonderfully old-fashioned newspaper, and although I was a cub, it allowed me to do an investigative piece on government-supported homes for mentally challenged adults. I did a lot of interviewing, reading records, and poking around. I was sitting with a calculator trying to figure out the cost of caring for an individual patient when I suddenly realized the state was paying more than was being spent. Where was the money going? The result was new legislation that tightened oversight while making certain the patients were getting better care.
MB: You co-founded International Thriller Writers with author David Morrell, as well as helped establish ThrillerFest as the premier conference for thriller writers and fans. Can you give me some insight into the origin of ITW?
GL: That was such fun, and an interesting time! Back in the summer of 2004, David, Vince Flynn, Kathy Reichs, Lee Child, Clive Cussler, myself, and several other thriller authors were invited by Poison Pen bookstore in Scottsdale to teach at a thriller conference. To the best of any of our memories, it was the first thriller conference ever. It was intended to teach writing and had been thrown together in just a couple of weeks. Surprisingly, attendance sky-rocketed.
Why? Because not only writers who wanted to learn craft signed up, so did readers who yearned to meet the folks who wrote the books they loved. Everyone was stunned by the interest. Gratified. And encouraged. Why? Because there were no thriller awards, no thriller conferences, and seldom any thriller panels at any of the mystery conferences. Thrillers weren’t nominated at the mystery conferences either. It was a sad state of affairs.
After we got home, David and I sent out emails to every thriller author we knew asking whether they’d like to have a professional organization. There was overwhelming support. So that autumn at Bouchercon in Toronto, some thirty of us gathered and voted to create ITW, and then they voted for David and me to be the first co-presidents. There was such high energy and a sense of vision. And so we did it – with no money but with incredible volunteers, ideas, and tireless work. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
MB: Finally, what can we expect next from the “queen of espionage fiction?” Are you working on any new projects?
GL: I’m working on a secret project with a covert collaborator. Of course, it’s a thriller, and in this case not only does the thriller contain secrets, but we coauthors are secret, too – until we’ve written the novel and are ready to go public. Buckle your trench coat. It’s going to be a great reading ride!
Thank you, Michael! It’s always a joy to visit with you! Sending all your readers many wishes for a year of great books.
MB: Thanks again for taking time to answer my questions. Best of luck with The Assassins.
For more information about Gayle Lynds and her books, check out her website at www.gaylelynds.com. You can follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/gayle.lynds, and on Twitter at https://twitter.com/gaylelynds.